Winter Sun Space

Using corten steel for the back wall of a sun catcher absorbs heat at a very rapid rate. (Photo: TNS)

It’s called a  “false spring “ when the weather turns mild for a few weeks between rain and snow storms of late winter. The skies clear and weak winter sun comes shining through as we approach the equinox. Although it may look warm from indoors, the moment you step out, the icy wind reminds you it’s still winter.

Just imagine if you had a spot to relax outdoors where this UV energy is intensified. Block air movement and the resulting sun drenched space becomes a naturally warmed solar sink. Similar scenarios were sought by man and animals alike as the age old way of warming the body naturally during sunny days of winter.

Sitting in the sun is the dermatologist’s cardinal sin, but this early in the year its rays are remarkably mild. It’s a great way to gently enrich your skin with natural Vitamin D instead of taking supplements. For those with arthritis, this can be an important part of the daily ritual that warms the joints to ease pain before activity. Above all, it provides a place to rest and renew without going indoors for comfort.

The design requires you to assess solar opportunities in your yard for creating a winter sun space in real time. Take note of where the sun shines around 11 a.m. to noon in winter. You’ll want unfettered exposure without overhead branches or adjacent shadow sources. Do it now in before the exposure changes with the sun as it sun moves into its northern summer location.

In many examples of sun catching spaces there is a wall. It acts as a thermal mass to absorb heat and reflect it back into the adjacent space. Solid partitions like this also provide 100 percent wind protection compared to using plants for the same purpose, which stop only a fraction of that. Using corten or other metals can absorb more solar radiation quickly, and then offers radiant heat much later in the day. The orientation of these walls must allow the most massive surface or the long side to receive direct sunlight for best results.

Other partitions can be used that are transparent or translucent, but not radiant. They solve wind without sacrificing light. Plexiglass or fiberglass make for an affordable windbreak fence. They may be created to suit viewing heights of the adjacent space and its furniture views. Sometimes a shorter partition or fence is preferred while sitting or reclining without blocking higher broad views.

A winter sun catcher is not usually a planted space because in most climates the garden is still dormant. Keep the size of the living space intimate so less heat is needed to make it comfortable. Above all, reserve it for passive use. It’s personal, so find a comfortable seat for rest and contemplation.

For couples, two chairs and a table is all you need, or two chaise lounges. The beauty of furniture in lieu of built-in seating is portability. Furniture can be moved with the sun as its position gradually changes through the day and the season. In terms of materials, know that cast iron is cold while teak and other woods warm with the sun.

The really fun aspect of creating a sun catcher is deciding what it becomes in the summer. Maybe it’s in the shade by then, an ideal scenario for a cool get away over the summer. If not, simply set up a big market umbrella for the season to perfectly adapt. Then decorate with a personal container garden of all your favorite flowers of the summer.

The fear of skin cancer has driven us away from direct sunlight even in the winter. Perhaps it’s why there is so much seasonally affected depression (SAD) and vitamin D deficiencies. Just imagine if all it takes is some direct solar exposure in these short days of the early year to clear up both in a most natural way.

By Maureen Gilmer, Tribune News Service (TNS)
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at Contact her at [email protected] or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.